“Lifeboat” recounts true story of courage, survival and enduring friendship

Photo by Eoin Carey SURVIVORS: Beth and Bess (Hannah Donaldson and Ashley Smith) look forward to their new lives in Canada in “Lifeboat.” This is a true story of courage, survival and enduring friendship set during World War II. Via their will to surv

The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts presents Catherine Wheels Theatre Company of Scotland’s production of “Lifeboat” by Nicola McCartney, directed by the group’s founder and artistic director Gill Robertson. The show runs for eight performances only, March 13- 22 in the Lovelace Studio Theater, located at 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd. in Beverly Hills and is recommended for ages 9 and up.

Winner of the Barclays Stage Award for Best Show for Children and Young People, “Lifeboat” by Nicola McCartney is a true story of courage, survival and enduring friendship set during World War II.  In September 1940, a ship, the City of Benares, set sail from Liverpool for Canada. Onboard were 90 evacuees trying to escape the relentless bombing and dangers of war-torn Britain. Four days into its journey, the ship was torpedoed and sank. Only 11 of the evacuees survived, including two fifteen-year-old girls, Bess Walder (Ashley Smith) and Beth Cummings (Hannah Donaldson) who spent 19 terrifying hours in the water on an upturned lifeboat during a harsh, relentless storm. Through their will to survive in spite of their dire situation, they endured to tell their story so the bitter consequences of World War II on so many innocent, young children will never be forgotten.

Playwright McCartney shares, “The story behind the play – true, inspiring and life affirming – was told to me by both Bess and Beth.  When Bess was in her 80s, she crossed the Atlantic by ship for the first time since the tragedy, and was finally able to cast flowers into sea where the City of Benares and the majority of its young passengers were lost. Bess and Beth never forgot them – and through “Lifeboat” we remember all of them, also.”

The two actresses, Ashley Smith and Hannah Donaldson, physically and emotionally command the stage for 70 minutes, starting with memories from Bess and Beth’s childhoods. With the addition of a piece of clothing, unique physicality, and a new accent, each actress plays many roles including their siblings, parents, and friends to other children and staff on the ill-fated ship. So vivid are the portrayals, each of these additional characters completely comes to life – even if we only meet them for a matter of seconds.

Bes and Beth had never met before boarding the ship, raised in different British cities but both in love with “The Wizard of Oz” movie which had opened the year before they set sail.  References to the classic movie abound throughout the play as the teens compare the people they meet and situations that arise to scenes from the film.  Moments of danger are greeted with the comical singsong “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” which seems to make even the bleakest of situations tolerable to the young girls.

Bess Walder, who died in 2010, said she wanted young people today to hear how the dramatic events of September 1940 influenced the rest of her life.  “Everybody has deep within them a facility to overcome danger – it is not often called upon, but the sense of survival is strong. What happened to me at age 15 gave me the gift of how to use my life. I hope that all young people who see “Lifeboat” take away the message ‘don’t let go’ – we can all achieve remarkable things.”

There were many children in the audience, and like me, they sat in rapt attention as we were taken on the girls’ journey from childhood through the dark and stormy night during which they willed each other to live while clinging to an overturned lifeboat adrift in the chilly North Atlantic. No doubt this history lesson is one that will be remembered by all who experience it thanks to the brilliant and compelling performances by Ashley Smith and Hannah Donaldson.

Kudos also go out to production designer Karen Tennent whose small stage ship set doubles effortlessly for many other locations; composer Dave Trouton who adds in so many greats songs from the time period; lighting by Jeanine Davies that moves between warm oranges to icy, cold blue; and period appropriate costumes by Alison Brown. And most of all, to Gill Robertson’s fast-paced direction that will keep you at the edge of your seat from moment-to-moment.

In addition to the eight public performances, The Wallis continues its educational outreach mission by providing 12 school matinee performances for underserved school children in Greater Los Angeles.

Tickets are available at www.thewallis.org or by calling 310-746-4000 or in person at The Wallis Ticket Services located at 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd. in Beverly Hills.